HOME SCHOOLING: WHAT’S HARD? WHAT HELPS?
Richard G. Medlin
Department of Psychology
College of Arts and Sciences
DeLand, Florida 32720
Keywords: Homeschooling, home schooling, home education
The number of children being taught by their parents at home has grown dramatically in recent years, with perhaps as many as one million children in the United States now being home schooled (Lines 1991; Ray, 1992). This rapid growth has stimulated research on many aspects of home education, especially legal and public policy issues (e.g., Cibulka, 1991; Furst, 1992; Richardson & Zirkel, 1991), demographic characteristics of home schooling families (e.g., Mayberry, Knowles, Ray, & Marlow, 1995; Ray 1990), the reasons parents give for choosing to home school (e.g., Gray, 1993; Van Galen, 1991), and children’s academic achievement and social development (e.g., Ray, 1988, 1990; Ray & Wartes, 1991; Shyers, 1992; Smedley, 1992; Wartes, 1990).
There has been little research, however, on difficulties parents may experience in teaching their children at home or on sources of support they use. Only four years ago, leading home-education researchers could assert, “No research has focused on the needs of these families” (Ray, Mayberry, & Knowles, 1992, p. 11). Since then, only one large-scale study of this issue has been published.1 Mayberry et al. (1995) asked almost 1,500 home schooling families what community resources they needed and used with an emphasis on services offered by public schools. Most of the parents surveyed wanted to enroll their children in academic courses and extracurricular activities offered by public schools. They also wanted access to school libraries and curriculum materials. Few, however, actually used any of these services, though they could have. Less than 15% took advantage of even the most frequently used resources, which were achievement testing, particular classes, textbooks, and school libraries. The authors concluded, “To assume that cooperative programs will be embraced immediately by either parent educators or educational professionals would be unwise” (p. 83).
The parents in this study were also asked about other resources, and almost all agreed that they needed “support and encouragement from family, friends, church, and community” (p. 73). In
particular, they wanted access to a home school support group, and this was one resource they did use when it was available. A preliminary report of this research showed that 85% of the parents surveyed either already belonged to a support group or intended to join one (Ray et al., 1992). Parents said support groups provided a way to meet other home schoolers who offered “the moral support and encouragement I need to continue home schooling” (Ray et al., 1992, p. 15).
Support groups can help home schooling parents in other ways as well. Bishop (1991) identified five major functions of home school support groups: providing information about legal issues; offering support to those experiencing problems; planning group activities such as field trips; giving instructional support through workshops, curriculum fairs, standardized testing, and the like; and providing orientation for families just beginning to home school.
Eckenwiler (1994) conducted an intensive study of one home school support group and concluded that these five functions were accomplished primarily through the personal relationships that developed among group members. He wrote, “Support and encouragement are more the result of informal relationships among . . . members than of any specific, formal activity of the organization” (p. 132). He found that personal contacts were the members’ main source of information about curriculum, legal concerns, and teaching methods. Thus resources such as support groups may be effective to the extent that they promote personal relationships among home schoolers.
There is an assumption—documented among those associated with public schools but no one else (e.g., Mayberry et al., 1995)—that home schooling is hard to do . . . too hard, in fact, for the average parent to do successfully. It is not known, however, whether home schoolers themselves find home schooling difficult. There is a supportive infrastructure for home schoolers. There are national and state home schooling organizations, conferences,
curriculum fairs, and local support groups. Many support groups maintain resource people to keep up with legal developments affecting home schoolers, plan group activities, arrange for standardized testing, and answer questions for new home schoolers. Information about home schooling and curriculum issues is available in a variety of books and magazines. Home schoolers, like most of us, have friends, family, and personal beliefs to encourage them. But it is not known whether such sources of support correspond to difficulties home schooling parents actually experience, and if so, how helpful they may be.
These are important issues. The number of children being home schooled is growing at the rate of about 15% per year (Ray, 1992). It is possible by the year 2000 that 2% of the school-aged population of the United States will be home schooled (Ray, 1992). Many of these children will at some point enroll in conventional public or private schools. Most will eventually take their place as adult members of society. Enabling their parents to educate them well, therefore, could have lasting effects.
The purpose of this research was to identify what home schooling parents find most difficult about teaching their children at home, what sources of support are available to them, and which of these they find most helpful. It was expected that parents would describe the physical demands of home schooling as most difficult: time, workload, self-discipline, balancing responsibilities. It was thought that supportive resources would be widely available and that personal sources of support, such as friendships with other home schoolers, family, and personal beliefs would be described as most helpful.
The participants were home schooling parents who attended the Florida Parent Educators Association annual convention in Orlando, Florida in June 1994. This association is Florida’s largest home school organization and is open to all home schoolers in the state. Although surveys were distributed to 975 families at the convention, only 163 completed surveys were returned, yielding a return rate of 17%. This relatively low return rate was probably due to the inconvenience of returning surveys by mail and the invasiveness of some of the survey questions.
Among these 163 families, the mothers’ mean age was 37.3 years and the fathers’ mean age was 39.8 years. Mothers and fathers both had completed an average of between 14 and 15 years of formal education. Almost all of the parents were White (97%) and Protestant (86%). The mean number of children per family was 2.8. Of these children, 54% were male and 46% were female. The children’s mean age was 8.8 years. The demographic characteristics of this sample were similar to those found in other, larger studies of home schooling parents (e.g., Mayberry et al., 1995; Ray, 1990).
A survey solicited demographic information from the parents, including their age, race, education, and religious affiliation. Their children’s age, gender, and the number of years they had spent in home schools, public schools, and private schools were recorded. Parents were asked how many hours per day and how many months per year they home schooled, how many years altogether they had been home schooling, and how long they intended to continue home schooling.
The survey included 21 items that parents rated according to how difficult they had found each to be in the past year. These 21 items were grouped into five categories: instructional tasks, physical demands of home schooling, managing children’s behavior, the parents’ feelings about home schooling, and other difficulties. The items are presented by category in Table 1. The five‑point rating scale ranged from “not at all difficult” (1) to “very difficult” (5).
Parents also rated 22 items according to how helpful they had found each to be in the past year. These 22 items were grouped into four categories: sources of information, organizational supports, resource people, and personal sources of support. The items are presented by category in Table 2. The five‑point rating scale ranged from “not at all helpful” (1) to “very helpful” (5). Parents were asked to indicate which of these supports were available to them during the past year.
The reliability of the survey was estimated using the internal consistency method (coefficient alpha). The reliability coefficient for all difficulty items together was .83. Coefficients for the five categories of difficulty items ranged from .62 to .77, except for the “other difficulties” category, which had a coefficient of .37. The reliability coefficient for all support items together was .90. Coefficients for the four categories of support items ranged from .69 to .89.
1. Finding good curriculum materials
2. Knowing what subjects to cover
3. Arranging for my children to be tested or
4. Keeping records of my children’s work
5. Developing daily lesson plans
6. Arranging special activities such as
7. Physical exhaustion
8. Caring for younger children during school time
9. Being disciplined in my own schedule
and work habits
10. Avoiding interruptions during school time
11. Having enough time with my spouse and
enough time alone
12. Having enough time for other responsibilities
Managing Children’s Behavior:
13. Handling discipline problems with my children
14. Motivating my children in their schoolwork
15. Handling a special learning problem with one
of my children
Parents’ Feelings About Home Schooling:
16. Feeling confident in my own ability to teach
17. Feeling supported in home schooling by
friends and family
18. Feeling that my children were progressing
19. Feeling that my children were progressing well socially.
20. Problems with public school officials
The validity of the survey was based primarily on item development: difficulty and support items were generated through interviews with home schooling parents. The validity of these items was supported in that few participants (9%) listed difficulties or supports other than those provided in the survey, though they were given the opportunity to do so. And some of the difficulties participants supplied were not really aspects of home schooling but were specific events such as “pregnancy” and “death in the family.”
Surveys were placed on the tables where parents attending the conference registered. A sign encouraging parents to take one was displayed beside the surveys. A box for completed surveys was nearby, though most people returned theirs by mail later.
Sources of Information:
1. Information on what should be covered at each
2. Home schooling magazines
3. Books about home schooling
4. Reviews of educational materials
5. My church
6. My local home school support group
7. State and national home school organizations
8. Curriculum fairs and book sales
9. Conferences and seminars
10. A library
11. A co-op arrangement with other home schoolers
12. A person serving as a liaison to public
13. A person providing political news related to
14. A person arranging for testing or evaluations
15. A person arranging special activities such as field trips and science fairs
16. A person arranging recreational activities for
17. A person who could answer my questions regarding legal
aspects of home schooling
18. A person who could answer my questions
teaching aspects of home schooling
Personal Sources of Support:
19. A supportive spouse and family
20. Personal relationships with other home
21. Spiritual encouragement from God
22. My belief that home schooling is best
The mean number of years participating families had been home schooling was 3.63 years. Although most parents (65%) had three or more years of experience, 25% had home schooled for only one year. The school-age children of participating families had spent an average of 2.96 years in home schools, 1.30 years in public schools, and .80 years in private schools. Although most parents (44%) intended to continue home schooling their children through high school, 37% said they were not sure how long they would continue to home school. The remainder (19%) gave some other answer to this question.
The number of hours per day families home schooled ranged from 1 to 7, with a mean of 4.01 hours. The number of months per year they home schooled ranged from 6 to 12, with a mean of 10.04 months. Most families (66%) held school for 9 or 10 months per year, though 20% home schooled year‑round. Table 3 presents the mean ratings of how difficult parents perceived each of 21 aspects of home schooling to be.
Rating Difficulty Item
3.51 Having enough time with my spouse and enough time alone
3.32 Avoiding interruptions during school time
3.28 Having enough time for other responsibilities and activities
3.16 Physical exhaustion
3.05 Being disciplined in my own schedule and work habits
2.71 Motivating my children in their schoolwork
2.65 Caring for younger children during school time
2.43 Developing daily lesson plans
2.26 Handling discipline problems with my children
2.16 Handling a special learning problem with one of my children
2.13 Feeling confident in my own ability to teach
2.09 Keeping records of my children’s work
1.64 Feeling that my children were progressing well socially
1.60 Finding good curriculum materials
1.32 Arranging for my children to be tested or evaluated
1.28 Problems with the public school officials
According to the parents in this study, the most difficult thing about home schooling was “not having enough time with one’s spouse and enough time alone.” Avoiding interruptions during school time, having enough time for other responsibilities and activities, physical exhaustion, and being disciplined in schedule and work habits were also rated as moderately difficult. The things that caused the least difficulty were finding good curriculum materials, arranging for children to be tested or evaluated, and problems with public school officials.
The mean ratings for each category of items showed physical demands of home schooling as the most difficult category (the mean rating for this category of items was 3.18), followed by managing children’s behavior (2.39), the parents’ feelings about home schooling (1.84), instructional tasks (1.83), and other difficulties (1.58).
Table 4 shows the percentage of families for whom each of 22 sources of support was available in the past year.
The most widely available supports were a supportive spouse and family, parents’ belief that home schooling is best for their children, a library, curriculum fairs and book sales, spiritual encouragement from God, and personal relationships with other home schoolers. Two supports in particular were not widely available: a cooperative
Percent Support Item
97 A supportive spouse and family
96 My belief that home schooling is best for my children
96 A library
94 Curriculum fairs and book sales
94 Spiritual encouragement from God
94 Personal relationships with other home schoolers
93 Books about home schooling
91 Conferences and seminars
90 Home schooling magazines
90 My local home school support group
88 Reviews of educational materials
88 State and national home school organizations
87 Information on what should be covered at each grade
86 My church
82 A person arranging special activities such as field trips
and science fairs
78 A person providing political news related to
75 A person who could answer my questions regarding
teaching aspects of home schooling
75 A person who could answer my questions regarding
legal aspects of home schooling
70 A person arranging recreational activities for children
70 A person arranging for testing or evaluations
37 A co-op arrangement with other home schoolers
arrangement with other home schoolers and a person serving as a liaison to public school officials.
Grouping sources of support by category revealed that personal sources of support were available to the largest number of families (95%). Sources of information were available to 90%, organizational supports to 83%, and resource people to 69% of the parents surveyed.
Table 5 presents the mean ratings of how helpful parents perceived each of 22 supports to be.
Of these supports, parents rated their belief that home schooling is best for their children as most helpful. Spiritual encouragement from God was next, followed by personal relationships with other home schoolers, a supportive spouse and family, and conferences and seminars. Least helpful were a cooperative arrangement with other home schoolers, a person serving as a liaison to public school officials, and churches. The mean ratings for each category of items showed that the most helpful category included personal sources of support (the mean rating for this category of items was 4.51), followed by organizational support (3.92), resource people (3.83), and sources of information (3.76).
Rating Support Item
4.63 My belief that home schooling is best for my
4.60 Spiritual encouragement from God
4.42 Personal relationships with other home schoolers
4.41 A supportive spouse and family
4.37 Conferences and seminars
4.20 Curriculum fairs and book sales
4.17 My local home school support group
4.16 A person arranging special activities such as field trips and science fairs
4.03 A library
3.99 State and national home school organizations
3.99 A person arranging for testing or evaluations
3.91 Books about home schooling
3.88 A person arranging recreational activities for children
3.79 A person who could answer my questions regarding
teaching aspects of home schooling
3.77 A person providing political news related to
3.75 Information on what should be covered at each grade
3.72 Home schooling magazines
3.71 A person who could answer my questions regarding
legal aspects of home schooling
3.67 Reviews of educational materials
3.52 A co-op arrangement with other home schoolers
3.11 A person serving as a liaison to public school officials
2.85 My church
The parents in this study were not experiencing a great deal of difficulty in home schooling. Most challenging, they said, were the physical demands of home schooling: time, exhaustion, avoiding interruptions, sticking to a schedule. Issues that sometimes receive more public attention, such as interference from public school officials and worries about children’s social development, presented little difficulty. Concerns directly related to instruction were apparently not significant problems, either. These parents had little trouble finding good curriculum materials and knowing what subjects to cover. They were confident in their ability to teach and in their children’s academic progress.
These results suggest that the view from inside home schooling may be quite different from the view from outside. Mayberry et al. (1995) surveyed public-school district superintendents in Utah, Nevada, and Washington. They found that only 6% of these superintendents believed that home schooling parents were good teachers, while only 16% believed home schools held to high academic standards. Fully 92% thought home schooled children were not receiving adequate socialization experiences. Such dissimilar perspectives would seem to make understanding and cooperation between home schooling parents and public-school officials unlikely, though most home schooling parents want to participate in activities and services offered by the public schools (Mayberry et al., 1995; Ray et al., 1992).
Sources of support were widely available to the home schoolers in this study. Almost all of those surveyed had access to a variety of organizational, informational, and personal sources of support. Most parents also had access to people who handled arrangements for testing, field trips, and other special activities, and who answered their questions about home schooling. Evidently an infrastructure is available to support home schooling families.
Almost all of the sources of support included in this research were described as helpful, which suggests that they were doing a good job of meeting many of the parents’ needs. The most helpful sources of support were personal: belief that home schooling is best for the children, religious faith, friendships with other home schoolers, a supportive family. Organizational sources of support–conferences and seminars, curriculum fairs, and local home school support groups– were also highly ranked. If, as Eckenwiler (1994) maintained, organizational functions are fulfilled through interpersonal relationships, then perhaps even these organizations were valued as much for the social contacts they allowed as for the services they provided.
Sources of information, though widely available, were included in the category of supports rated as least helpful. Resource people were described as less helpful, perhaps because they were less accessible than most of the other sources of support. Churches, too, received a very low rating though most parents claimed some kind of religious affiliation and described their religious faith as highly encouraging. Churches could be missing an opportunity to serve as an appropriate and accessible source of support for many home schooling families.
In conclusion, the hardest aspect of home schooling for the families in this study was simply the time and effort it requires. Although many helpful resources were available to them, the most important sources of support were personal. These results suggest two ways to support home schooling parents: help them cope with time and workload demands and strengthen their personal sources of support. For example, cooperative teaching arrangements, which were seldom used by the parents in this study, and unit studies, which allow children at different grade levels to study the same topics together, could reduce the parents’ workload. Personal supports could be strengthened through mentoring of new home schoolers by more experienced parents and using computer networks to link different families together (Pride, 1995). There are, of course, many other ways parents could be supported in the sometimes demanding task of teaching their children at home. A goal for future research is to determine the best resources and delivery systems to help home schooling families succeed.
1. The Ray et al. (1992) article was a preliminary report of the research presented more fully in Mayberry et al. (1995).
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